Nike Air Max 97

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    Nike Air Max 97

    Air Max 97

    Throughout the 90s, Nike took its popularity to another level with a string of successful releases. Many of these were in the Air Max line, which, by 1996, was fast approaching its tenth anniversary. Though initially designed for runners, many Air Max iterations had become popular outside of this community, where they could be seen on the feet of celebrities and sneaker enthusiasts alike. As a result, expectations increased with each new release, so the pressure was on for the designers who came to work on the newest addition to this storied collection – the Nike Air Max 97.

    The project to craft the Air Max 97 got off to a slow start as two of its early designers could not come up with anything to meet the brand’s high standards. Nevertheless, Nike persevered, soon finding the man that would eventually define the aesthetic of the AM97 – Christian Tresser. Before joining Nike, Tresser had already gained experience designing football boots at the highest level. Starting his work for the brand in the mid-90s, he set about building a good reputation during his collaboration on a football boot in the Air Zoom GX project, which would later lead to the creation of Nike’s first ever synthetic boot, the Mercurial. With this achievement and a lead design job on the Air Zoom Spiridon behind him, Tresser began work on the Air Max 97. Before he started, however, Nike gave him a simple message: this shoe will define your career. And so it did.

    Designed as a running shoe, the Nike Air Max 97’s primary innovation was an extension of the visible Air that had graced previous versions. It became the world’s first trainer with an Air unit that could be seen across its entire length, a feature made possible by a technique called blow-molding, which had been pioneered four years earlier on the Air Max 93. This cushioning bed was also foam-free, distinguishing it from prior Air Max designs, all of which had included some use of foam.

    Tresser was highly selective about the materials he used on the Air Max 97. Its new ventilated panels were made of a tough, reflective mesh in a mechanical style, so the shoe was even more breathable than its predecessors. It also featured 3M reflective strips on the upper that alternated with the open mesh in a unique unbroken linear style. These flowing wave-like bands were inspired by the natural effect created when a droplet of water falls into a pond, causing tiny ripples to radiate away from it. In similar fashion, the ripple lines on the AM97 emanated in the direction of the full-length Air cushioning, drawing attention to the latest evolution of Air Max technology. They also lent the upper a smooth aesthetic that was enhanced further by Nike’s innovative new lacing structure. This clever system hid the eyelets behind the outer mesh webbing – something which had never been done before – giving it a sleek look.

    First released in 1997, the Nike Air Max 97, which Tresser had initially called the Air Total Max in his early sketches, launched in a Metallic Silver colourway derived from the designer’s interest in cycling. An admirer of contemporary mountain bike designs, he took the metallic tones often used on such vehicles and used them to create the color palette seen across the shoe. His aim was to produce a design with minimal colors – a bold Varsity Red being the only tone to deviate from the otherwise silvery hues – that relied on metallic, reflective surfaces to forge a sophisticated look. This color scheme also gave a nod to the super-fast bullet trains of Tokyo, whose shiny silver appearance resembled that of the Air Max 97, earning it the moniker “Silver Bullet”.

    Being associated with such a revolutionary technology brought the Air Max 97 plenty of attention, but its fame was boosted further by two important events. Firstly, it was endorsed by legendary Olympic athletes Michael Johnson and Carl Lewis. Secondly, the design made its way to Italy, where it rapidly grew in popularity. The sneaker’s unique appearance appealed to a number of different subcultures and was adopted by several luxury brands, eventually ending up on the catwalks of the Milan fashion scene the year after its release, where it made its way into shows by both Armani and Dolce & Gabbana. With this approval, the 97 became admired across the whole country, where it was given the nickname “Le Silver”. In fact, its Italian legacy is so strong that, in 2017, an entire book was devoted to the subject: “Le Silver: An Italian Oral History of the Nike Air Max 97”. Nike has also chosen to recognise this special relationship over the years by creating an edition of the AM97 decorated in the colors of the Italian flag and releasing the 20th anniversary reissue of the original colourway a few months early in the country.

    When it came out, the Nike Air Max 97 felt futuristic while also having a retro feeling. Even today, it still has a futuristic look, and its harmony between performance and aesthetics marks it out as a masterpiece of sneaker design. From its earliest beginnings, the Air Max 97 distinguished itself as an influential shoe, which is why it has gone on to become an iconic silhouette in Nike’s history, and one that continues to impact sneaker culture to this day.

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